No one is suggesting that Barbie is sacred. But the removal of images of the long-legged incarnation of unrealistic beauty from the walls of a Beirut art gallery this week struck a blow against freedom, culture and mutual understanding that might easily have been avoided.
Jocelyne Saab is a respected artist, journalist and human rights campaigner. Her photographic exhibition opened this week in Planet Discovery featuring what she calls neo-pop art: Digital photographs illustrating ideas of the East, the West and globalization with striking images of lurid commercial detritus. Not only does Barbie run – sometimes bare-breasted, sometimes fully veiled – through the images, she is joined by political and religious memorabilia depicting Hassan Nasrallah and Jesus Christ.
The opening of Saab’s show on Tuesday night was well received by members of the Ministry of Culture among others. But on Wednesday, employees of the art gallery removed, against Saab’s wishes, images from the show that they deemed to be too political and too religious to exhibit in Beirut. The gallerist who runs Agial in Hamra offered to show the pictures, but in an act that he calls “self-censorship,” he will show them only in the basement upon request.
Art should be a forum for debate and discussion in a healthy society. That a large gallery should censor a respected artist is shameful. That a small gallerist should self-censor out of what he described as an atmosphere of fear is terribly sad. But that the Ministry of Culture should, having seen and liked this work, stand by and do nothing, is an indictment of a toothless government. It is grist to the mill of those who accuse Lebanon’s government of weakness and point to religious institutions as holding sway in the country.
Neither Hezbollah, Islamic religious figures nor the Church have voiced objection to these images. If the situation is such that frightened or politically motivated people will refuse to show a controversial image, they didn’t need to. But the Ministry of Culture must recognize that even if it itself carries out no censorship, its job is also to discourage self-censorship and foster the culture of freedom of expression that will strengthen democracy and make obsolete restrictive religious leadership.
And the best argument for the Ministry of Culture intervening in this situation is that it has done it before. When Tarek Mitri, who worked extensively on religious dialogue, was culture minister, even as the Resistance was camped out in Martyrs’ Square seeking the downfall of the government, he overturned the censorship of the thoughtful and beautiful film Persepolis. He also ensured that two controversial plays by Lina Khoury and Rabih Mroueh were performed uncut.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s untouchable status was reinforced once before, when his supporters put violent pressure on the producers of the television program Basmat al-Watan to stop parodying him in 2006. At the time, the actor who played Nasrallah said, "I parodied a political leader… not a religious authority." This time, Hezbollah did not ask for the pictures to be taken down, but Lebanese, scared of incurring the party’s wrath, decided to avoid a repeat of 2006. Hezbollah is a political party, and in a healthy democracy such as Lebanon seeks to be, Hezbollah be subject to the same spirited debate in all forums as everyone else. This is precisely what the government must remember.
The Ministry of Culture has a wonderful opportunity to step in here, reinstate the images and show that they are not afraid of freedom of expression and that in Lebanon no artist, gallerist or citizen need be afraid either.